The Seattle Seahawks are running another play from an evolving virtual fan engagement playbook, teaming with Microsoft once again, this time to connect fans in Microsoft Teams with players and coaches before a game.

The experience using the tech giant’s collaboration software is called Pregame Huddle, and allows a select group of fans to feel closer to the action as the Seahawks warm up at CenturyLink Field. As the team continues to play in an empty stadium during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Seahawks are seizing on technology to try to bridge the divide.

Players coming out of the tunnel to the field are encouraged to stop at a Microsoft Surface Hub where they can say hi and chat with the fans who have assembled in Teams. Seahawks game-day emcee and radio personality Gee Scott serves as a host, leading chats between fans and getting the players to interact. As the team is warming up, a video feed in Teams might show stars such as Russell Wilson tossing passes to D.K. Metcalf, or offer up stats on Bobby Wagner and so on.

“This is a very unique way to use our technology to engage fans,” Jeff  Hansen, Microsoft’s GM of  strategic partnerships, told GeekWire. “It taps into the excitement and the intimacy of the pre-game experience.”

The Huddle is aimed at paying special respect to what the Seahawks and Microsoft regard as local community heroes — those who are going above and beyond for a variety of reasons. Over the course of the season, the Seahawks have been inviting leaders from Black and Latinx community organizations, cancer survivors, essential workers, military service members, representatives from charities that the players support, and more.

On Sunday, before the Seahawks game against San Francisco, the team is inviting 30 firefighters from Spokane, Wash., to take part virtually.

Microsoft’s partnership with the NFL dates back to 2013. Players and coaches use Microsoft Surface tablets on the sidelines during games and throughout the week for preparation. Both NFL staff and the teams themselves are now also using Teams to get work done, and the NFL used Teams for its virtual NFL Draft earlier this year.

When the new — and radically altered — season kicked off in September, Microsoft and the league announced that some fans would be invited to watch games via Teams and end up on a “Fan Mosaic” that would be streamed on LED screens in stadiums and on the TV broadcast.

The NFL is also installing LED screens at the back of each end zone at stadiums for “key games,” and calling it the Bud Light Showtime cam. The Fan Mosaic stream on the screens after touchdowns; the idea is to help players celebrate with fans during scoring plays.

Microsoft worked with the NBA during its season to gather fans for games in Teams “Together” mode, a feature for video meetings that places participants against a shared virtual background. The league placed giant video screens around the basketball court to make it look like virtual fans were seated in the stands.

Jeff Richards, vice president of marketing and community for the Seahawks, called increased “tech fluency” one of the few wins from a difficult year. The team is no longer bound solely to the 69,000 fans who can be at the stadium on game day.

And while there is no replacing or replicating the feeling of a stadium full of screaming fans, with the Pregame Huddle the Seahawks are trying to digitally tap into smaller game-day experiences that resonate with fans.

“Replacing those things was a huge priority for us, because those are the things really that cause people to want to come back, to make Seahawks fandom part of their lifestyle, part of their identity,” Richards said of exclusive experiences, like inviting fans on the field before a game.

And Microsoft is learning that the end of the pandemic may not necessarily bring an end to the work of revolutionizing how fans view sports. Many fans never even get the chance to attend a game in person and technology will increasingly step in as a substitute.

“That’s what we’re seeing with so many of our partners,” Hansen said. “A silver lining to this whole thing is them reimagining how we might use technology in many ways, but particularly fan engagement.”

This article was originally published in Geekwire byKurt Schlosser